Chin Peng: Hero or Criminal?

The recently deceased communist leader Chin Peng has severely divided opinion in Malaysia.

The death of Communist Malayan Party leader Chin Peng has revived the debate about his role in the modern history of Malaysia and Singapore. 

Chin led the resistance against the Japanese occupation during the Second World War; and then subsequently, against the British colonial forces in the late 1940s and 1950s. As an independence fighter, he was often compared with Myanmar’s Aung San, Indonesia’s Sukarno and Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh.

But his campaign to establish a communist state, which led to many years of civil war, also made him unpopular. He was accused of waging a brutal guerrilla war that killed thousands. After the defeat of his forces, he moved and operated near the Thailand-Malaysian border. He lived in exile in Thailand even after a peace agreement was finalized with the Malaysian government in 1989.

Malaysian officials have rejected the request to bring home Chin’s ashes, claiming he was not a Malaysian citizen. Moreover, they are worried that a memorial could be erected by Chin’s followers. 

“We know that if his body or ashes are brought back, there will be some who will deify him as a warrior-hero or make a monument to him. This will further break the hearts of our veterans and their families on top of the cruelty of Chin Peng and the communists,” said Malaysia’s Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi.

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Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad reiterated that Chin fought the British so that Malaysia can be converted into a satellite country of the Soviet Union. He added that the divisive leader didn’t want democracy for Malaysia.

Meanwhile, M Kulasegaran, a member of parliament from Ipoh Barat, suggested that Chin’s ashes should be returned home in recognition of his “valiant” struggle for independence and in deference to the terms of the peace accords which the government signed in 1989. 

For opposition politician Tian Chua, Chin’s role in the region’s history should not be diminished. Tian said: “We have our evaluation of his role in the country even if we agree or disagree over his ideology. We must recognize that he was part of Malaysian history. He and his generation have shaped what we are today. And together with other leaders in Southeast Asia, they shaped the map of Southeast Asia.”

As expected, Malaysia didn’t send an official representative to Chin’s burial ceremony. But retired Thai generals and even a member of Thailand’s royal family managed to pay their last respects to the late communist leader. 

Chin’s last letter to family and friends was read during his wake: “I wish to be remembered simply as a good man who could tell the world that he had dared to spend his entire life in pursuit of his own ideals to create a better world for his people. It is my conviction that the flames of social justice and humanity will never die.”

At the time of his death, Chin and his party no longer have any political influence in mainstream Malaysia. But perhaps his exhortation to the younger generation to continue the struggle for social justice is the threat that Malaysia’s ruling party wanted to suppress.